by Melissa Sue Sorrells '05
In March, the Geneva City Council made history when it held its regular monthly meeting on campus. At the top of the evening's agenda were briefs from several Hobart and William Smith students who spent the fall semester working within the Geneva community to explore a variety of local issues.
"These students have invested a piece of themselves in Geneva," said Geneva Mayor Stu Einstein during the meeting. "This is a big deal to us, and I hope that having a City Council meeting on campus shows how seriously we're taking their projects."
The projects are known on campus as community-based research, a semester-long commitment to the exploration of a local issue in conjunction with a community partner.
"Community-based research projects are like an internship because the student is working in the community in a professional capacity," says Bob Murphy, the director of the Salisbury Center for Career Services. "But it's also like an honors project because the student is working largely independently on a project that is in line with their own academic or professional goals."
Community-based research projects are also entirely unique because they have a direct, positive outcome for the community being served.
"Because we have limited staff and resources, these projects are obviously a benefit to the City, and they will guide the Council and other area organizations as we work to make Geneva a better place," says Einstein. "But they're also a terrific way for students to use the community as a laboratory to test what they've learned in the classroom."
During the course of these projects, students learn as much from their community partner as they would from their professors, but they also work with a faculty mentor who brings additional rigor to the process by assigning project-specific readings and helping tackle any process problems.
"This is a great way for a student to get a course credit while exploring an area that's of personal interest to them," says Associate Professor of Economics Tom Drennen, who worked with Austin Kana '09 on an energy efficiency audit of the City's buildings. "It's given Austin the opportunity to steer his educational experience."
Students also walk away with evidence of sustained and meaningful work, making them more competitive for internships, graduate school, jobs or fellowships. Perhaps more importantly, students learn new ways to become engaged citizens.
"Geneva has been an extraordinary host to the Colleges. This institution was built by Genevans, and our history and future are intertwined," says President Mark D. Gearan. "We have a unique opportunity to join together in partnership. The civic engagement skills our students develop here in Geneva should carry with them throughout their lives so that they can be change agents in their own communities."
"It's always beneficial when community members can see students in a new light, but it's equally important for students to see the community in a new light," Einstein says. "There has always been a strong connection between Geneva and HWS, but I think this takes it to a whole new level, and it's exciting."
Though the community-based research program is still in its infancy (the first projects began during the fall 2008 semester and involved nine students), everyone - from the Mayor to the students - is positive about the long-term impact of their work.
?These are living, breathing projects and the conversations that they spark continue long after the semester is over,? says Associate Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning Katie Flowers.
"I believe that students learn better when they're actively involved in their learning, and the community is also elevated by their work. As these projects continue, semester after semester, we will begin to see the impact of student work in the community."
Austin Kana '09
Austin Kana '09, a double major in environmental studies and public policy, worked with city officials to create a comprehensive energy efficiency audit for all of the Geneva City government and Geneva School District buildings.
Kana's interest in energy audits began last summer during an internship in the Bostonarea with the Environmental Protection Agency. "In focusing my attention on just one city - Geneva - I was looking forward to using what I learned over the summer to really dig deep and take a close look at energy policy," he says.
In the end, the city will use Kana's data and recommendations as they make policy decisions. "It was awesome to be able to work closely with city officials and the mayor - the people who make the policy decisions - to develop this project, and I hope they'll keep me updated on the progress that's happening as a result of my work," says Kana.
For Kana, the experience was a helpful step toward developing career goals. "I now have a very good sense of local and municipal energy policy. In the future, I hope to get involved in more of the state and national energy policies. Once I've experienced it at all levels, I'll have a better idea of where I want to see myself."
Whatever he decides to pursue, Kana's community-based research project has helped him develop the confidence and skills to make a splash. "What's really special about this experience is the realization that I, as an undergraduate student, have something real and viable to offer the City of Geneva," he says. "It made me realize that I really am making a difference."
Casey Marshall '09
Casey Marshall '09, a psychology major with minors in child advocacy and education, worked with Assistant Professor of Psychology Julie Kingery on the Kindergarten Literacy Initiative Project (KLIP) on behalf of Success for Geneva's Children, a local organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children and their families.
The pair closely collaborated with community members to determine what they should measure, and they met with parents and children during the first day of kindergarten to determine the literacy level of students.
"I was so excited about getting involved in the Geneva community," Marshall says. "I have the utmost admiration and respect for the principals, teachers and parents. They really are trying to do what's best for their students."
The results of their research in the fall and the research that Marshall will complete this spring will inform the Geneva Reads initiative, which intends to raise the level of literacy in Geneva and to increase the importance of reading in the community.
"Our findings really stressed the importance of families reading together," she says. "And it also showed that parents' reading habits have a big influence on the literacy skills of children."
What began as a community-based research project has expanded to become Marshall's honors project, and she will revisit the project at the close of the school year to explore how students have progressed over the course of the academic year.
"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to work with so many of the community's children," says Marshall, who will begin a Ph.D. program in school psychology at the University of North Carolina in the fall. "I learned so much, but also am really glad to have been able to give something back."